What inspired you to write The Giver in the first place?
Lois Lowry: Well as it happened, my father was very old at that time and in a nursing home. I would go to visit him about every six weeks in another state, and on this particular visit I realized for the first time that he was beginning to lose pieces of his memory. He didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but he was getting up there — around 90 years old — and he had forgotten my sister and that startled me. My sister, his first child, had died young, but he had obliterated somehow that memory and I began thinking on my way home, Heck, maybe it’s a good thing you forget something when it’s painful, but of course when you start thinking along those lines you realize that it’s not a good thing. The product, what we’re made of, is our whole path — good and bad. And so I began to think about the possibility of writing about people who had found a way to manipulate human memory. That was the start of The Giver, and I’ve never been a writer of science fiction or even a reader of it, but all of a sudden I realized I was going to have to write a book set in the future and that’s what it turned out to be. That was the start of it.
Do you ever say what time period The Giver takes place in?
LL: No, it’s just some time in the indefinite future. It’s kind of interesting, I have a grandson who’s 13 and he asked me recently how far in the future it was. He speculated it was 50 years in the future, and the reason that came up is because the filmmakers had asked me how the boy’s bedroom should be decorated, and I said it should be very stark, nothing decorative on the walls, but maybe something educational like the periodic table of elements. And I mentioned that to my grandson and he said, ‘Fifty years in the future, there won’t be any helium anymore.’ Well, who knew, only a 13-year-old [laughs]. So you know, things of that sort would be very different, but who knows, the future seems to be speeding up and I read an article recently implying that very soon we will in fact be able to manipulate human memory. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad, we can only guess.
What do you think?
LL: That’s a little scary to me.
Did they consult you for anything else for the movie?
LL: They let me read the screenplay and asked me to comment on it, and then the director emailed me periodically throughout the early part of the filmmaking asking my advice about set design, costume design, etc. So I was really in the loop from the beginning; they had no obligation to, I had no veto power, but they could not have been more gracious than they were and they brought me over to South Africa to watch the filming. They really have just been wonderful to work and be with.
The Giver has a very ambiguous ending and it seemed like that was the end of the story, but then you came out with a sequel. Did you always plan to write a series or did that just happen?
LL: No, writing the second book kind of took me by surprise. I hadn’t intended sequels or companion novels, but I got so much mail from readers who were dissatisfied with the ending. To me it was always an optimistic ending, but some people felt that they were dead at the end. The movie retains the ambiguity of the ending, but I think the optimism is a little clearer at the end of the movie than it was in the book, so people will go away happy from the movie.
So is there a chance the other books will be adapted to film?
LL: There was some talk among the filmmakers of a sequel, but it’s really too soon I think. They’ll have to wait and see how this film does before they make any decisions.
This movie adaptation is years after you wrote the book. Did you always want it to be a movie? Why so late?
LL: I’ve always been a movie fan; I’m probably the only person over 75 who has seen Wayne’s World 2. At any rate, I was very delighted when they approached me to make a film, but I was also aware of the difficulties of this particular book becoming a film because it’s an introspective book and there’s not a lot of action, and I knew they would have to add action — which they have done — and I just hoped they would do it well and keep it in tone of the book, and they have done that. So, I’m very pleased with the decisions they’ve made, even making the characters a little older has worked well.
So, what’s their ages?
LL: Jonas, Asher, and Fiona are more like 16 and instead of having the ceremony where the kids turn 12, the ceremony takes place when they graduate from their education and are given their job assignments. So they’re teenagers, and the only thing I asked the filmmakers was that they not turn it into a teenage romance, and they have not done that, but there’s a sweet quality to the relationship between Jonas and his friend Fiona, and they’re both very lovely looking kids. Teenagers will shiver with excitement at the thought of a romance, but it can’t happen because in keeping with the book, the boy leaves at the end and leaves her behind.
How long ago did they approach you for the movie rights?
LL: I think it was 18 years.
That’s how long ago??
LL: Yeah, it was a very long time! Jeff Bridges bought the rights to the book because he wanted a movie that he would direct and would star his father, a very fine actor named Lloyd Bridges, he would be the title role. And then years passed and it just never got made, and Lloyd Bridges eventually died, but Jeff continued to hope to make the movie and now of course he’s old enough and with the right makeup, was able to play the role himself and he does an incredible job.
Do you think part of the reason it’s coming up now is because of this trend of dystopian-book-to-movies?
LL: Possibly. You know, who knows why things happen and fall into place, but certainly dystopian literature for young people and then the ensuing movies like Hunger Games and Divergent have been very popular. This one [The Giver] has been in the works longer, but those have been made into movies sooner. So, it couldn’t hurt the popularity of this particular genre.
Were you ever hesitant about it becoming a movie?
LL: I don’t think so, but I think the reason I was never terribly worried about the quality of the movie was because of the hands that it was in. I’ve always respected Jeff Bridges and he was working with other people who are very confident and all of them very devoted to the book, and all of them have children who have read the book. So I think that gave me a certain amount of lack of worry. I felt it was in good hands — even though they weren’t my hands [laughs]. And also, they’ve been very gracious in keeping me in the loop and seeking my advice and my opinions throughout the process.
When you were writing the book, did you always have the same ending? Any alternate endings?
LL: No, it was always directed towards that ending. I don’t have an ending firmly, clearly in mind when I’m writing any book, but when I get to the ending, everything seems to go in a certain direction and by the time I reach that final page, it feels like the only way it can end, at least for me.
Like you were saying earlier that they put more action into the movie. It seems from the trailers that Meryl’s character is supposed to be a big villain, but in the books she just doesn’t know.
LL: Yeah, the Chief Elder in the book is a woman, but she has a very small role and no personality really. And boy, once you have Meryl Streep playing that role, you want it to be a bigger role. Also, it added wonderful conflict to the movie. Jeff Bridges is what I would describe as the spiritual leader of the community, and Meryl Streep is the political leader, and in the movie as you can tell from the trailer, they fall into conflict. There’s some scenes between the two of them that are truly very stunning, and the Chief Elder in the book didn’t have the opportunity — I didn’t give her that opportunity — so I’m glad she got it in the movie.
In The Giver series, there seem to be several different types of societies and they’re not quite the same. How did they get to that place?
LL: Well I think this is not mentioned in The Giver, but in the second book, it refers back to some sort of — it’s not explicit — some sort of cataclysmic world events that have taken place, and these other societies have sprung up in various forms. We can assume some kind of nuclear disaster, some kind of war, some kind of climate disaster, and we don’t really need to know what has happened. We just have to assume the world has changed and had to restart in some way, and those restarts have taken different forms.
How did it get to that point where everyone is the same color and there’s no minorities? What happened that made it that way?
LL: See, you’re asking questions about technology and I’ve avoided any of that because I don’t have a clue how I got to that point, but I think we can assume that over generations and back and back and back, just intermarriage would do that. I read somewhere that if all dogs were allowed to run loose and intermarry as it were, that eventually we would end up with a world of medium-sized brown dogs. And so I think that’s what has happened in this world. But of course, casting hundreds of people to play the citizens in the community, I don’t think there are any marked differences but of course they’re not all the same color, not all of the same color hair, even though they’re in black and white you can tell that.
In the third book of the series, The Messenger, Jonas tells Matty about the books he came about. Was it the Giver who sent them?
LL: Yes, it would’ve been. I had forgotten that part. Incidentally, in the Giver’s quarters in the movie, where he lives and where the boy goes, I went to South Africa and saw the room where they filmed those scenes. They bought 22,000 books from used book stores to put in that room, it’s just an astounding room. And then when the movie was finished, they donated those books to schools and wherever. Anyway, in that third book we get to see Jonas as a man, he’s now grown, the leader of the community, and he talks about the books. Chances are he didn’t have 22,000 [laughs], that’s quite an array of book cases. In the movie, the Giver has to climb a ladder to get the books down.
So does this mean Jonas’ old world all regain their memory?
LL: Yeah, I think we can assume that and I think the movie allows you to assume that too. The boy undertaking to save the baby does in fact save the world, his world at least, and brings about change that’s good, but we don’t know the details.
Why do people with pale eyes have gifts?
LL: Incidentally, In the movie, they don’t have the pale eyes. It became a problem needing to put contact lenses in certain people, including babies, was just too much of a problem. So they have a different identifying gimmick, but in the writing of the books, each of the main characters in each book is a young person, and each of those young people have a particular gift. That was true in the first book, he called it the gift of seeing beyond, and then I just kept it up for the subsequent books and by the time I got to the fourth book, I had to decide what gift the boy, and it’s actually the baby Gabriel who grew up to be an adolescent, what his gift would be. And I think his is most important because he has the gift to be able to experience other people’s feelings, and only if we all had that gift, there would be no more conflict in the world.
Do you make a secret cameo at all?
LL: [Laughs] The scene in the book, which is not in the movie, where the boy bathes the old woman in the house of the old, I told Jeff that if they put it in the movie I would’ve volunteered to be the old naked lady in the bathtub. Only joking! Actually, they offered to let me sit on the stage as one of the elders, and I declined. And then when I watched them filming that scene on the stage, they sat there for 11 hours and I was very glad I declined.